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Computer-Assisted Creative Thinking

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TOM DUKE of Burlington, Iowa, calls himself a "scientific farmer." And I guess he is.

Every fall, he has to spray the inside of his grain bins with an insecticide. It's a dirty job, climbing up a ladder with the toxic chemical. So last year, casting about for alternatives, Tom tried a computer program called Mindlink Problem Solver.

And something clicked with bumblebees.

"Wouldn't it be great if we had a bumblebee to spray the walls for us?" he recalls thinking. "So I picked up a piece of aluminum tubing to see how it would look." From imagining a bumblebee flying around his bins, he started thinking about the aluminum pipe. He invented and built a pipe-and-sprayer contraption that lets him reach the highest walls without a ladder. He credits Mindlink for its mental prodding.

Mindlink of North Pomfret, Vt., is one of a small but growing number of companies that sell "brainstorming" software or "computer-assisted thinking."

Four weeks ago, Bernard Joy had a ticklish problem. His church's development committee spent weeks batting around fund-raising ideas for the church school. But it couldn't develop a plan. So Bernard, a pastor with the Memorial Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., gathered the committee. Then he opened a program called Project KickStart, typed their ideas into his notebook computer, and let the committee see the process on an external monitor he had hooked up.

"In an hour and 15 minutes, we walked out of there with a plan," he says. A week later, the group met again and, using Project KickStart, assigned each of the plan's 50 or 60 steps to a person. It's too early to tell if the plan will work, he adds. "What the computer did was to enable us to structure the process."

Computer-assisted thinking? Imagination at the touch of a keyboard? It sounds like a gimmick. Or vaguely scary.

Sure, computers help people make decisions by organizing data in a better way. But jump-starting their creativity? Hmmmm.

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